“Moshe brought the people forth from the camp toward G-d, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain” (Shemot: Chapter 19, Verse 17).
In explanation of the phrase – ‘And they stood at the bottom of the mountain’, the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) states, that Am Yisrael found themselves, literally, under the mountain:
‘And they stood at the bottom of the mountain’: R. Abdimi b.Hama b.Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an inverted cask, and said to the’If you accept the Torah, it is well and good; if not, there shall be your burial.’ This interpretation of the reality at, Har Sinai seems in total conflict with one of the most well known verses in Torah:
“He (Moshe) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will obey (Naase Venishma)”. (Shemot: Chapter 24, Verse 7)
On the one hand we are told by the verse itself, of Am Yisrael’s absolute commitment to Hashem, “Naase Venishma”. Yet, on the other hand, the Talmud somewhat deflates the event, by explaining that this commitment was made seemingly under duress. How can we reconcile the verse, with the Talmudic interpretation of events?
The Tosafists, were very much aware of the apparent contradiction. They explain that even though the people did openly commit themselves by saying ‘Naase Venishma’, there was a worry that when they actually experienced the revelation at Sinai, they would be so fearful, that they would retract on their original commitment. Thus, there was a need, despite their conviction, to ensure that they keep to their original statement. In essence, Tosafot explain that their fear of remaining at Sinai would be outweighed by their fear of running away.
In extending the solution offered by Tosafot we may suggest, that Am Yisrael were not only physically fearful of the fire and thunder that they would experience at the revelation on Har Sinai, they were also fearful of the closeness to Hashem that they would be accorded from now onwards. The closer one is to power, the greater the advantages, but with those advantages come greater disadvantages. Thus there was a need to ‘force’ the acceptance of the Torah, despite the commitment reflected by ‘Naase Venishma’.
Even though ‘Naase Venishma’ had been proclaimed with absolute sincerity, when faced with the reality that was now required of those closest to the King, they would retract to a position more distant from the King, for reasons of safety.
The Netziv, in his introduction to the Book of Bamidbar, reflects on the above theme. He explains that the entire sefer is dealing with the differing relationships held between G-d and His people. Essentially, the Netziv is of the opinion, that when Am Yisrael experienced, first hand, what happens to those closest to G-d when they do not abide by His laws, they opted for a more distant natural relationship with Hashem.
The Maharal, in dealing with the apparent contradiction between Naase Venishma and the Talmudic record of events, explains quite beautifully, that even though Am Yisrael were absolute in their acceptance of the Torah, there was a universal need for the Torah to be given ‘under duress’. Hashem did not want mankind to understand that the existence of Torah in the world was dependent on the will of any particular people. The world has to know, that without Torah it is of no consequence. As the Midrash tells us, had we not received G-d’s Law at Har Sinai, the world would have returned to a state of complete confusion.
On the one hand, Am Yisrael accepted the Torah in complete faith, yet at the same time a clear message was given to mankind as a whole, if ‘they’ do not accept the Torah, the world will cease to exist.
The Keli Yakar, explains, that the event as described in the Talmud was not, in fact, an ultimatum served to Am Yisrael. Hashem was simply explaining, by way of parable, the type of life a person who does not accept the Torah really lives. Indeed the people had committed themselves to G-d and His Law, yet there was a need to describe what kind of ‘real life’ a person who does not accept Torah has. As if to say, that one who does not live in accordance with Torah, is as good as ‘dead’ in human terms. ‘If you accept the Torah, it is well and good; if not, there shall be your burial.’
A person whose entire emphasis in life is in the material arena, has nothing ‘to take with him’ when he dies, not simply in a physical sense but in every sense. What has he really achieved, any satisfaction has been temporary at most, momentary at the least. Time has passed and what has he done? When he stands before G-d on the Day of Judgment what will he present as his achievements? His three-story-house? His two cars? What has his life really been about? What has he actually achieved as a human being? How has he used those unique gifts given to him during his temporary stay in this world?
The Keli Yakar’s words are simple but penetrating. When Am Yisrael accepted the Torah, Hashem wanted them, and all of mankind to be aware of what the real alternative is. The real alternative is a life of no long-term purpose, a life as a superior animal but not as a true human being – ‘If you accept the Torah, it is well and good; if not, there shall be your burial.’
The Meshech Chochmah reconciles our two sources in a different way. He explains that the people did indeed accept the Torah in absolute terms. The Talmud, on the other hand, is describing to us what the reality at Har Sinai was. In essence, the revelation was so great, their exposure to Hakodosh Baruch Hu so intense, that in real terms they had no choice. At that moment, the truth was so clear to them that any other alternative would be considered as ridiculous. There was no ultimatum served, on the contrary, the people made the choice, however, the circumstances were such that to choose otherwise would have been incomprehensible.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, in his work ‘Emet LeYaakov’ differentiates between the two parallel relationships that we have with Hashem. On the one hand, man is required to serve G-d with fear. To serve G-d with the understanding that He is the King of Kings, the Holy One. To internalize that everything is under G-d’s control, and to be in awe of that reality.
On the other hand, man is required to serve G-d out of Love. To rejoice in the connection that we have with the Almighty. To run with fervor to do His will. To excite in His Mitzvot, to adhere to his every word as we would to the words of our parents, whom we love and whom we want to please in every way possible.
‘Avinu Malkeinu’ – G-d is both our Father, we love Him, and our King, we fear Him. Both of these components are essential to our relationship with the Almighty. When the people stated Naase Venishma, this was an expression of absolute love. ‘We will do’, there are no conditions. Whatever is Your will, will be done, without question. However, this is only part of our relationship with Hashem. The Talmud completes the picture by explaining that at Har Sinai there was a need for the fear of G-d as well as the love of G-d. The Talmudic explanation does not contradict the verse; on the contrary, it completes the verse. It shows us that even though the love of G-d was prevalent, the fear of G-d was as essential a component – for G-d is Avinu Malkeinu. During a week that we celebrate Tu Bishvat, Rosh Hashana Leilanot, I would like to dedicate the last few words of this week’s shiur to Eretz Yisrael.
For many years Tu Bishvat, which is essentially a Halachik dateline (regarding, Terumot Maasarot, Orlah, and the Seven year cycle), was celebrated by the Jews in exile as a day of remembering Eretz Yisrael. A yearning to return to our Homeland, and eat of the seven species. Many had the custom to hold a ‘seder Tu Bishvat’, learning Midrashim regarding Eretz Yisrael and its fruits. Yet for our generation, I feel that this festival is even more significant. We have merited, for the past sixty years, to be here, and to actually plant trees in our Holy Land. Tu Bishvat, was once celebrated ‘in memory of’. Today, we have this most incredible zechut, to live here, independently. We live the Halachot of Terumot and Maasarot. We live the Shmitta year. We do not simply read of the greatness of Eretz Yisrael, we have the ability to actually live the dream of two thousand years. We have spoken of the absolute commitment of Am Yisrael to Torat Yisrael, that incredible statement of ‘Naase Venishma’. Inherent in that statement is a loyalty, that is complete – whatever is demanded we will do – irrespective of our understanding.
At this time we need to make the very same statement regarding our commitment to Eretz Yisrael. This is our land – it is our only land. This land was given to our forefathers, by G-d. The mere fact that there are many Mitzvot that can only be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael, is a clear indication that this is where we are meant to be. Eretz Yisrael is an inherent part of Torat Yisrael, and so that same commitment of Naase Venishma, that is such a central part of Matan Torah, must be accorded our land. In the same way that we cannot compromise regarding the adherence to Torah and Mitzvot, we cannot compromise in our aim to live as Am Yisrael in our Homeland. Naase Venishma, we will do first. We must live here, and build the land, and develop the society that we live in. We must do so unconditionally. Our commitment to our cause must be strong, and unrelenting.
We have merited living in such an incredible time, we must realize this period to the full. That is not to say that everything is perfect, that is far from being true, as we all know only too well. However, as opposed to millions of Jews over hundreds of years, I and many of my family and friends, did not sit around a table in Eastern Europe on Tu Bishvat, I was in Eretz Yisrael, with Am Yisrael, keeping Torat Yisrael. For that reality I thank Hashem every minute of the day.